Okla Elliott, author of the story collection, From a Crooked Timber (Press 53, 2011), is the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois, where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies.
A graduate with an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, Elliott’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translations, have appeared in such literary journals as Another Chicago Magazine, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, and New Letters,to name a few.
He is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including most recently, A Vulgar Geography, published in 2011 by Main Street Rag Press, and he is the co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov (New American Press, 2008).
Derek Alger: Where did you spend your early childhood?
Okla Elliott: I was born in rural Kentucky, spending my early childhood in Argyle, KY, and then later in Richmond, KY, after my sisters adopted me. My father was in his sixties when I was conceived. He was born in 1917 and fought in World War Two, came home a mostly useless drunk and ruined his first family. My sisters and I were a sort of second go at it for him. From what I understand, my mother’s schizophrenia hadn’t set in when he met her. That came a few years later. He held things together pretty well while he was alive, and in his own way gave me my start with books.
Neither of my parents graduated high school, and we were living off of my father’s veteran’s pension and Social Security by the time I was of reading age, so as you might imagine, there weren’t a lot of objects of high culture lying around, no collected works of Shakespeare or novels by the modernists, etc. But my father did buy us a nice encyclopedia set and a large dictionary that had lists of countries, U.S. Presidents, and various historical timelines in the back. I must have read that entire encyclopedia set two or three times.
DA: What kind of student were you?
OE: I have been a pathologically good student most of my life, and I think in part this was instilled in me by my father. I don’t recall him ever directly saying it, but from an early age I got the sense that education was the way out of poverty, out of ignorance, and into a better life in every sense — economic, intellectual, personal, etc.
My sisters and I are the first generation of our family to go to college, and I have to say, we definitely brought ourselves out of the world we were born into. They are both successful and living in Charlotte, NC, right now, and I am doing my PhD at the University of Illinois. My sisters and I have taken different routes away from our childhood home, but we have all traveled (literally and figuratively) quite a distance from where we began.
DA: You also have roots in Charlotte.
OE: I did my first two years of high school in Richmond, KY, and then, when my sister Vickie got a job in Charlotte, NC, we moved there, leaving my other sister Flora to finish her degree at Eastern Kentucky University. So I finished high school in Charlotte.
During those years, I was this skateboarding kid who read everything I could: Albert Camus, Isaac Asimov, physics books, books on Buddhism, etc. I was the math and science guy growing up, and I still love those subjects in an amateurish way. By the age of thirteen, I knew I wanted a PhD, though at that time, I assumed it would be in physics or chemistry. In college I studied physics and computer programming at first, taking foreign language classes and philosophy classes on the side.
DA: You followed a winding path to become a writer.
OE: To make a long story short, I slowly realized I could make a life of philosophy, literature, and languages, so I slowly switched over and ended up with a dual degree in philosophy and German, with minors in French and religious studies. I’d read most of Nabokov on my own my freshman and sophomore years as well as a fair amount of Goethe, Robert Penn Warren, and Voltaire. In many ways, these writers are still very much my models. All wrote in every genre; Voltaire was as important a political thinker as creative writer; Nabokov was a scientist who discovered a new species of moth; Goethe was a translator, a scientist, a statesman, and a creative writer in every genre. I think it was also this mix of writers that gave me the idea that the way to become a writer was to travel the world and experience/learn all I could, which led me to studying in Germany for a year and and then in Poland for a semester as an undergrad, as well as traveling all over Europe.
But my past was still with me. For example, when I did my first study abroad, to Germany, I had never been on an airplane, not even for a domestic flight. And now here I was flying around the globe to spend a year alone in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language (except what my intro German classes had taught me, which wasn’t much). My ignorance of how to become a writer led me on my weird path to becoming one, though I wouldn’t change anything in the way I educated myself into the calling of literature and philosophy.
DA: What prompted you to go to Poland?
OE: I went to Poland for just a semester after returning from Germany. I guess I had gotten the travel bug and enjoyed Europe greatly. I was also enjoying learning these languages. It’s impossible to study German and Polish literature of the twentieth century and not run into issues surrounding the Holocaust, but I wasn’t yet focused on trauma studies or Holocaust studies. That came later. But even if I wasn’t focused on these fields of study yet, I was interested in them and certainly built the foundation of my current scholarly interests while studying in Germany and Poland and traveling in Eastern Europe.
DA: And then, you decided to earn an MFA degree?
OE: Well, first off, I was very hesitant about the MFA route. As an undergrad, I had taken one fiction writing workshop and enjoyed it somewhat but also felt the model had its abundance of flaws. I finally overcame my hesitance and applied to MFAs, though I also applied to several law schools as well. When the results came in, I had several law programs offering full funding and several MFA programs offering full funding. After some investigation into how brutally unhappy most American lawyers are, I decided to go with the MFA route, selecting Ohio State University’s program. The way things happened, I had decided on the MFA path by the time OSU contacted me, so I accepted their offer within about seventeen minutes of receiving it.
Ohio State University was my first choice for several reasons. First off, they would let me work in multiple genres, which is essential to my way of working. And, secondly, the faculty is amazing. Lee K. Abbott and Lee Martin were fiction writers I already admired, and Andrew Hudgins was (and remains) one of my favorite poets in the English language. So, when I was offered a shot at working with these guys and the other faculty there, I jumped on it. And even though I had some problems with the MFA model as such, I ended up absolutely loving my time at OSU and sing its praises every chance I get.
DA: How did the idea for The Other Chekhov come about?
OE: Basically, my best friend in Ohio State’s MFA program, Kyle Minor, and I were sitting around the computer lab we liked to work in late at night, and we got to discussing how Chekhov has been completely cast as this quotidian writer of subtlety-unto-boredom, yet, as we point out in the book, he published over five hundred stories in his lifetime, many of which are deeply grounded in the realties of war, poverty, and violence that shaped daily life in the nineteenth century. So we dreamed up the idea to find ten stories that were from this other Chekhov and then find ten contemporary writers to introduce each of them. The rest, as they say, is history.
DA: What types of stories are in your story collection From the Crooked Timber?
OE: Well, the title comes from a famous saying by Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made.” The book’s primary theme is human crookedness and all the noble and desperate and pathetic and cruel and generous things we do to come to terms with that crookedness. The structures and styles of the stories vary quite a bit, but they are linked along those thematic lines.
The book was brought out by Press 53, which is one of my favorite literary presses, so that made me happy. And Kevin Morgan Watson, the main fiction editor there, is just perfect to work with. I owe him and the Press 53 staff a big thanks for all the work they’ve done in bringing the book out and promoting it.
DA: Tell us about New American Press and how it came about.
OE: David Bowen was doing his MFA at UNC-Greensboro, and I was working full-time at the library there as the evening manager as I pieced together a comparative MA in economics and politics. We ended up living together and becoming fast friends. We wanted to write our own work, but we also wanted to contribute to the community of literature while, let’s be honest, imposing our tastes on it a bit. So we founded New American Press and began doing chapbooks. And over the years it has grown to doing full-length books as well as chapbooks, and in 2009, we launched Mayday, which is a hybrid online/print journal.
Our publishing model for the journal is an attempt to navigate the contemporary landscape. It is impossible to ignore the utility of online publishing, but most writers and readers still enjoy a print book, so we will be doing anthologies every other year that include “best of” previous issues and longer works we feel would be annoying to read online. We definitely publish the sorts of things you find in any journal, but we also want to focus a bit more on translation, travel writing, and literature/commentary that acknowledges there are other parts of the world outside the United States. We live in a global society now, and since U.S. policies affect so much of the world, it strikes me that it is about time we start taking notice of that world.
Just this past month (December 2012), we achieved non-profit status, which we hope will up our game considerably, since we can apply for sizable grants and hopefully garner some tax-deductable donations from well-to-do folks who love the arts.
DA: What comprises the trauma studies research which you are currently involved with at the University of Illinois?
OE: My scholarly work is on the intersections of the existentialist philosophy of Badiou, Beauvoir, Heidegger, Levinas, and Sartre, as well as the fiction of Jerzy Kosinski and Norman Mailer, with the fields of trauma studies and Holocaust studies.
Existentialism was born from the triple violence of World War One, World War Two, and the more diffuse violence of modern alienation. Due to this gestation in suffering, I argue, existentialism is the philosophy of pain, suffering, and violence par excellence. My dissertation attempts to rejuvenate discussion on some of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers and writers by viewing their works and lives through the lens of the more recent fields of Holocaust studies and trauma studies. It also attempts to alter and enhance these fields of study by injecting the philosophical insights of these thinkers into the discourses of these fields. Their work can enrich the discussions within Holocaust studies and trauma studies by adding existentialist analysis into a field historically dominated by psychoanalytic theory, and these more recent fields of inquiry can help us to recast and better understand some of the titans of twentieth-century literature and philosophy.
To get a little bit away from that perhaps too technical and jargon-y description, I will add that with soldiers returning from our various wars and with another mass shooting almost every day, the field of trauma studies seems more important than ever, so it’s not just some hyper-technical academic exercise. Given the ubiquity of violence in human life, I think it might be one of the most important fields of inquiry out there—which is why I chose it.
DA: So, tell the truth, are you now a pathological PhD guy?
OE: Maybe. I have been seriously considering a second PhD or at least a few more MAs in fields as wide-ranging as law, physics, and psychology. I suffer a constant intellectual wanderlust, which is why I love writing so much. With writing, I can research pretty much anything I want to whatever degree I want and have a justification for doing so. Recently, for example, to get some authentic details for a longish story I am writing, set in Civil War-era New Hampshire, I had to look into school regulations, clothing styles, boating technology, and so on. This was a great pleasure. It’s unlikely I’ll do another PhD after this one, but only time (and whimsy) will tell. I am taking a grad-level philosophy of mathematics course in the spring, since I am now ABD and have no more courses to take for my current degree.
In a perfect world, I’d write a few bestsellers and just remain a student for the rest of my life, racking up a wall full of MAs and PhDs in every subject humankind has concocted. I love very little more than learning, and I find everything fascinating. Artsy types who hate math and science have simply not studied it sufficiently to feel the awe and beauty there. And the same goes the other way around. People who devalue the arts and such simply have an impoverished appreciation for them. I am fascinated by all of it in its infinite variety.